Guests at Outrigger Maldives Maafushivaru Resort can see heavenly bodies on the beach. Not the celebrity type, but celestial bodies in the sky – all thanks to the stargazing passion of the resort’s director of rooms, Ibrahim Mubaarak, or ‘Ibbe’, as friends call him.
Like many Maldivians, Ibbe started working at resorts on the country’s many exquisite coral atolls. One of his early jobs was to prepare water sports equipment at night for the next day’s guests. Ibbe spent a lot of time on beaches and on the water after dark working by the light of the stars. He couldn’t help but notice the multitude of constellations, endless worlds beyond worlds, all highly visible due to the absence of any light pollution from urban centres.
Maldives’ position almost on the Equator also helps. It allows stargazers to see constellations above both northern and southern hemispheres.
One night Ibbe was chatting to an English couple on the beach. They knew about astronomy and shared information that captivated his imagination. On a return visit they brought him a telescope. Ibbe’s journey as an amateur astronomer took off in earnest.
Along the way Ibbe learned from a former NASA astronomer hired at a Maldivian resort to promote stargazing for guests. Inspired, Ibbe took the plunge in 2012 and invested a lot of his savings in a Schmidt Cassegrain C8 XLT telescope.
“Astronomy is a hobby where you have choices,” says Ibbe. “You can spend very little, or a lot, almost all your wealth….I don’t really spend that much money on astronomy. I’m doing it on a, er, sustainable basis,” he laughs.
The trick he says is to look after your equipment. “You don’t need to have a lot of money. It’s more about dedication.”
With a decent telescope of his own, Ibbe's passion for astronomy grew. But he also continued his day job in resorts, doing well as a manager, rising in rooms divisions. Eventually, he worked at two resorts where Outrigger’s current general manager, John Allanson, encouraged Ibbe’s after-hours devotion to astronomy. To the delight of Ibbe his hobby was formalised into an evening activity for guests staying with Outrigger.
“Most of the guests smile and go ‘Wow’,” says Ibbe, when they look through the telescope and see the rings and moons around Saturn and the cloud belts of Jupiter. “It’s a jaw-dropping experience for them. Some of the guests don’t believe me. They say, ‘You’ve put a slide in there!’ They have no idea that there are things in the sky that can surprise them like that.”
Ibbe tells them stories of how ancient civilisations on Earth such as the Mayan and Egyptians built pyramids aligned to star patterns. Until the Enlightenment, humans believed in astrology, star signs and the power of the moon. It wasn’t until the Dutch developed telescopes in the early 17th century and the advent of philosopher-scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and more recently, Einstein, that astronomy revealed wonders and ideas even more mind-boggling than ancient astrologers imagined.
Like the universe, a conversation with Ibbe, while star gazing, knows no bounds. You may find yourself discussing the origins of life, the definition of what ‘life’ is, Big Bang Theory, the expanding universe – and how Einstein got that bit a little wrong.
“It makes you feel you are a very small part of the universe,” says Ibbe. “It makes you put everything into perspective once you learn about astronomy.”
An area he would like to get into more on Maafushivaru island, is sun gazing during the day using solar telescopes. There is zero risk of eye damage and you can see flares, waves, dark spot magnetic fields and “prominences.” Flares sometimes shoot high into the atmosphere around the sun only to be pulled back by gravity. “It’s really a phenomenal thing. For the night time astronomer, it’s a completely different experience,” says Ibbe.
Back on Earth, Ibbe found that sometimes stars and fate collide.
Ibbe met his Japanese partner when they were on a stargazing date. They are now married and have a one year old daughter called Juna.
Maybe it was written in the stars.
Outrigger Maldives Maafushivaru Resort offers guests evening stargazing sessions with Ibbe. It’s a humbling experience.